Sunday, October 10, 2010

Misguidance Counsellors, Part One

There's an old joke to the effect that if guidance counsellors knew anything about career moves, they wouldn't be guidance counsellors.

That's a bit harsh but like all jokes, there is a truth there, exaggerated to comic effect though it may be. Guidance counsellors give a lot of bad advice. In some respects they can't be blamed. At my high school of 2000 students, there were two guidance counsellors--which one you got depended on whether your last name started with A to M or N to Z. In a work year of 2000 hours, that meant each student got a total of two hours' attention from a guidance counsellor. Imagine being expected to shape someone's future in the time it takes to watch Avatar.

I'm thinking about this now for a few reasons.

First, this is the time of year that high school seniors are getting their university applications together. Fully a year before they start post-secondary education, they are expected to have a pretty firm idea of where they want to go and what they want to do. That's overwhelming enough.

But, secondly, they are getting most of their advice from Mature and Respectable Adults--not just guidance counsellors but parents, teachers and society at large--which is to say, pretty much by definition from people who made their own decisions in this regard under radically different circumstances.

Strictly speaking, that category includes me. Having gone to university in the very early 1990's, before the wholesale deregulation and de-capping of tuition, I faced a radically different cost-benefit analysis. For instance, my undergraduate tuition was about $1600 per year, about one-third what it would cost today. I was also insanely lucky. My parents paid the full cost of my undergraduate degree. Housing costs were dirt cheap, and preposterously so in Montreal where I went to school. Because everything went exactly right for me, I graduated with no debt, free to do whatever I wanted. Even so, many of my friends were not so lucky. Twenty years later, that kind of luck is even harder to come by.

The contrast between today's situation and that of someone in 1970 is even more extreme. Those people lived on a whole different planet, with a completely different atmosphere and everything.

So I'm writing this series of posts for any high schooler who is looking at going to university; who will almost certainly be getting a lot of unconditional encouragement to do so; and who in any case will not be in a position to properly evaluate their decision until after they're committed.

I'm not going to say university is a bad idea or that you shouldn't go. The case I'm going to make is that it's not that simple; that there are pros and cons; but that most of the advice you get will tend to overemphasize the arguments for, and discount the arguments against.

Take this series of posts as one opinion of many. Your parents etc. might disagree but if they do, they should be able to articulate why. Actually, that's the first lesson: critical thinking, and learning to distinguish between good advice and bad advice. Shit too often closely resembles shinola. Thinking is hard; start practicing. You still have a year.

To be continued.


  1. Considering that (in Ottawa) the highschool demographic is shrinking, yet university enrolment is way up, I would assume the trend is still to push university really hard to all students regardless of their interests or abilities.

    I had been wondering recently what is on the highschool curriculum these days and what the philosophy behind schooling looks like today.

    I look forward to further posts in this series.

  2. p.s. I first went to university around the same time as you. I'm betting the program you were in had additional expenses. my tuition was just a titch under $1400 per year. At that price, I could get a degree and buy an old car and still have change left over for the price of one year of tuition today(about 6 grand after this years increases).

  3. If you're thinking about money, not such a good idea- but I am very happy with the brain my university experience left me with. I can see the differece that education caused when I talk with people who are just as smart, or smarter, than me but have no higher education. Like you say, pros and cons, but I picked up a certain structure from the university experience that makes me better equiped to do what I want to do with my life.
    And I can tell you from experience, going into debt to attend University is a much better plan than washing dishes for a living.